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Chinese big man Zhou Qi rejects Josh Jackson shot, looks at home on Summer League court

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LAS VEGAS — Before Monday, my last memory of seeing 7’2″ Chinese center Zhou Qi going up against NBA talent was not a good one for the young man with NBA aspirations. He was part of the Chinese national team that played two exhibitions against Team USA before the Rio Olympics, and Zhou looked overwhelmed in the first meeting, shooting 1-of-6 shooting for two points. He looked more comfortable and aggressive in the second meeting and led China with 13 points, plus intimidated a couple USA drivers into the paint, but he didn’t seem NBA ready yet.

He looks much closer now. Just ask Suns’ No. 3 pick Josh Jackson.

In Las Vegas playing for the Rockets’ Summer League team, Zhou looks at home on the court — he belongs. He is tall, long (7’7″ wingspan), and is surprisingly mobile. In the past couple of years, it seems Zhou’s game has matured. (To be fair, part of it also is judging anyone against that Team USA squad — with 12 of the top 15-20 players on the planet — was unfair.)

He’s still a work in progress with a long way to go, but the Rockets like what they have seen this summer in terms of his potential as a shot-blocking big in the NBA.

“You look at the game… he had 3 points in 23 minutes, but he was a +23, which means he was having a positive impact on the game,” Rockets Summer League coach Roy Rogers said Monday after a Rockets win. “Sometimes when you’re watching him you don’t realize all the little plays he makes while he is on the court, whether it be contesting a shot, getting a rebound, in the right position defensively. He’s progressed really well in this first week of Summer League, we just have to keep him going in the right direction.”

While defensively he has looked better, Zhou is shooting just 32 percent in Las Vegas. He has knocked down a couple of threes but mostly struggled from deep (0-7 the last two games). The Rockets want him to take those shots, they don’t want him taking midrange jumpers, they like he is willing to shoot the long ball. One good development on Monday was when a defender closed out on him at the arc he put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket.

“I don’t even consider it him struggling with his shot because he’s had great looks,” Rogers said.

Zhou is learning the NBA game. He has struggled some deal with bigs who can step out on the perimeter — his instincts are to protect the rim, so against Denver in his first Summer League game he was late to recover on Juan Hernangomez, letting him get open looks on jumpers.

Zhou also needs to get stronger to deal with some of the more physical big men in the NBA.

“I think the muscle part is overrated, because in our league now we want to show off our speed and athleticism, so there’s no need in him becoming a bulky guy… (mobility) is one of his biggest strengths right now,” Rogers said. “I think our training staff, strength coach, will get him stronger, but it’s not a big focus of ours, to necessarily get him bigger.”

For NBA teams, Summer League is about discovering and starting to unlock potential — and Zhou has that. He’s a project, one who likely spends part of next season in the G-League getting run he could not on a contending Rockets’ team, but you can see why Rockets GM Daryl Morey signed him. It’s not hard to see where Zhou could fit in the NBA game as a shot-blocking big who can knock down the occasional three. He has a spot in the NBA if he continues to develop.

“He’s a special kid,” Rogers said. “You coach him, you get on him, you tell him what to do and he goes back out and does it as hard as he can. So he’s been a pleasure to be around. He gets along great with this teammates. I’ve been fortunate to get to coach him.”

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri